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The Art of Writing: What makes a good story?

March 11, 2015

What makes a good story?

Storytelling is coming into its own as a spoken-word art. It starts of course with the written word. With the beginning, the middle, and the end, so carefully crafted that the listener, or the reader, is drawn into the story before they are aware of it.

“Storytelling is joke-telling,” says Andrew Stanton (Toy Stories and Finding Nemo, among others you will know). “It’s knowing your punchline, your ending—knowing that everything you’re saying, from the first sentence to the last, is leading to a singular goal.”

Meaning, to me, if you don’t know how your story ends—and I mean to the very last period at the end of the very last word in your story, novel, poem, article—you can’t know how it must begin, or what has to be said throughout to bring your reader to that end. Not every story is a joke, not every tale is funny, but every one has a punchline.

Tom Albrighton (ABC Copywriting) noted some key points of storytelling, including drama (well, yes), relatability, immersion, simplicity, familiarity, trust in the story teller. All good measures to involve the reader. But I like this one best: “agency,” the art of letting readers work out the meaning of the story for themselves.

I discovered this concept by accident, on reading Hemingway for the very first time in my life, less than a year ago. “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” chosen at complete random as the first to read from an anthology of all Hemingway’s short fiction.

And here’s what happened as I read this: There was no backstory provided, just the characters immersed in their world, doing what they were doing, saying what they were saying. I sought in vain for an anchor to hold the story, and in such seeking I leapt from one word, one sentence, to the next. I became invested in the story, shaping it in my mind as I went, thinking I knew what was happening and what was going to happen.

I was wrong about that, of course. The penultimate moment, when it came, not when or what I expected, was all the more powerful for the weaving of the story that had happened within my own mind. I had no word for it then, but I do now: “agency.”

Your job, as the storyteller, is to give that to your audience.

P. S. These hints were published in Toastmaster, the official magazine of Toastmasters International, an organization that every writer who wishes to promote a book through public speaking and book events. (More on Toastmasters in a future post).

P. P. S. Not all of Hemingway’s stories have this effect. The next one I read (and the last, as it turns out, largely from the failure of the promise) left me cold.

On the writing of a Trilogy. . . .

March 5, 2015

On the creation of a trilogy–which the three parts of Tom Crean’s real-life adventures certainly comprise–consider these thoughts adapted from the interview of graphic novel creator Jason Neulander by Chad Jones appearing in SF Chronicle’s “96 Hours” dated 3/5-8/15.

Jones: “Do you need to have seen the [first installment] to enjoy those following?”

Neulander: “Absolutely not. No previous [] experience necessary. The story stands alone. Book two is, like any good middle part of a trilogy, a little bit darker. It has more characters and is more complex.”

The same can be said of the Tom Crean trilogy “Sailor on Ice.” Each of the books is intended to stand alone as a story, and work with one or both of the other two to create a monumental story of one man’s survival–not as an individual, but always and inevitably as a part of a team dependent on the integrity and strength of each of its members ensuring the ultimate survival of all.

[The three books of the Tom Crean trilogy in order of historical event are “Antarctic Voyager (1901-1904),” “Sailor on Ice (1910-1913),” and “Hold Fast (1913-1916),” are all in print as of May 2015, and will be subsequently published by Terra Nova Press as a boxed set entitled “Sailor on Ice” in 2016.]

King Lear at the Lark: Up close and personal like you’ve never seen him

February 28, 2015

You may think you know him, the tragedy of a doddering old man whose senses are beginning to leave him, and whose children use his failing powers to take what is his in the name of protecting him. It must have been as common an occurrence in Shakespeare’s day as it sometimes seems to be today. To hear the arguments of King Lear’s daughters Goneril (Maev Beaty) and Regan (Lisa Repo-Martell) it only makes sense to do so. Seen through the filter of his still sound mind in its lucid moments, it is betrayal that he calls out and confronts with all the passion his soul can muster. In Colm Feore’s King Lear, that is a lot of passion, and his early face-to-face confrontations with his daughters it spills out with volcanic fury, and is met with the same.

There are other betrayals—son against father, brother against brother, wife against husband—and they are played out with equal, unbridled passion, to their ultimate Shakespearean tragic and ruthlessly bloody end. But this performance is Lear as you’ve never seen it. Stratford Festival  has filmed the play live in their great theater in Ontario, Canada. Those in the audience are watching and responding to the performance, but they see it only from a distance.

This film brings us into the play in a way that watching it on stage can never do. The miracle of modern film brings the action, the faces, the tears of sorrow right to your own eyes. At its most beautiful moments—Cordelia reunited with her father, Lear comforting the blinded Gloucester—we the audience are moved to tears ourselves. At its most horrid—slash of the knife to the eyes, the brutal deaths by blade—we recoil in fear. Mercifully some of the deaths at the end of the play occur offstage. Lest anyone think the Bard was unusually bloodthirsty in his depictions of eye-gouging and murder, one has only to look to the recently discovered, violently mutilated remains of another medieval monarch, Richard III.

The performances are of the highest caliber, and we view them with the greatest clarity in detail, lighting, and sound. The one-night showing at the Lark is over now, but this is one version of King Lear you can see if it comes again to an art-house theater near you, or by renting a DVD to watch at home. It casts a whole new light on a play you may have thought you already knew.  Directed by Antoni Cimolino.

Look for two more of Shakespeare’s finest—King John and Anthony and Cleopatra—coming later this year to the Lark. Mark these dates on your calendar:  April 8 and May 21, 2015.  Don’t miss them.
If you haven’t already been to the Lark theater in Larkspur, give yourself plenty of time. It’s not easy to find, but believe me, if this is your only chance to see Shakespeare this close and personal, it will be well worth the effort.
 
Lark Theater:  549 Magnolia Ave., Larkspur CA  415-924-5111

“I-80, Nebraska” by David Hirzel

February 19, 2015

I-80, Nebraska
by David Hirzel.

Rain drops on a cold day in mid-July
like winter come early or a day caught
between hours, an indeterminate

sentence of half-light in mid-continent,
that vast shield of grass along the Interstate’s
straight line halving the earth, north and south.

This land is named by the names of towns,
speaks through the night with a radio voice
giving out farm prices, wears a face

seen standing at a long line of gas pumps
or on girls with too much makeup in cafes
small-talking the passing-through, those

driven between shores, dropped between
mountains where the land gives no horizon
more than a few miles distant for two days past

and one day yet to go. The light leaves early
under low clouds. Lights go on.
We blind each other from opposite directions.

The wet pavement’s downbeaten rain
rises like heavy smoke from each wheel’s track,
mist on the mirror of a mapped-out plan.

Of all possible ways we could have gone,
we chose this today, this divided highway
that brings us whipping each other on

with wind and a hard rain, a fear
of stopping and losing all that time hard-won
by going too fast too far too long.

The lights go on for miles beyond
the strength of this vision. In them our common purpose
unites in a roar and a gleam, and from behind

the swinging blades on this one window,
in the wet red sheen of all that lies
before me, I see the image and the glow

of a candle and your face. For one of those
coming faces framed behind wet glass,
there must be a moment’s recognition

to be found in mine, like a blurred sign
of all we are after, the same promise
of a night’s shelter, the same anonymous

gift of a straight, true, level path
leading us all into the distance where
the rain closes with the night, the glare

of headlights stops its argument
for two directions, constant and opposed,
and diminished clouds begin their slow ascent.

by David Hirzel, July 1985

“Better Never than Late”–Contra Dance in Sebastopol, or wherever you may be. . . .

January 27, 2015

If you’re not familiar with Contra Dance (and bear in mind that I am only just barely so), think square dancing-mingled with line-dancing spun to the old-timey tunes of a three-piece acoustic band. On Saturday night last, the band Ruby Mt. String Band consisted of fiddle, banjo, and guitar, the tunes were long-winded reels and waltzes.

The outward-reaching contra dance community welcomes newcomers to the art, and so novices like me and Alice and Sharab are provided with a short introductory lesson 1/24/15 at Wischemann Hall in Sebastopol, in the very basics of the dance before the fun begins.

The dance is made up of squares of four, interweaving with each other as they move in opposite directions, so that every sixty-four beats or so, you have a new partner with whom to run through the same figures. The figures include “balances” and “do-si-do’s” and “hays” and “swings” two or three or four times during the course of each reel. Since you might have six or eight squares constantly moving through each other, caller Celia Ramsay‘s admonition “better never than late” is particularly apt [and grist for the mill of another, barely related post].

The music is fast-moving, as are the twenty-four or so dancers. If the newcomer gets behind in the beat (we always do), there is no chance that by moving faster he will recover and be in place when his new partner is reaching out, balancing, or getting ready to swing. Don’t even try. “Better never. . .”

Now, in my view the best thing about contra-dance, indeed all the social dances of a bygone era, is this: every two minutes you get a new partner. And two minutes after that another. And you get to interact with each in a prescriptively chaste manner, with the “swing” a closed box with only two occupants, each holding the other around the waist or at the shoulder. “Swing” is a vigorously rhythmic spin to the music. The key to not getting dizzy is to look into your partner’s eyes.

Now, picture this. You are spinning across the dance floor and looking deeply into the eyes (is there another way?) of a complete stranger. Behind that stranger’s face the whole world is spinning. To your own new eyes it appears as though you are the lead actor in a romantic movie, and your partner is, well, your partner. And, from sheer joy, you are both laughing like hell. There is no other way you will become so intimate with a total stranger in under two minutes. And in another two minutes, you will have another with whom to become so engaged.

And everything about this moment is so completely chaste.

And you won’t get to have this moment, if you don’t make it happen. So, in this case it’s “better late than never.” But when you’re the newcomer on the Contra Dance floor, it’s the other way around. You could say that’s the magic of it. . . . And if you’re lucky like me, you get to leave the dancehall with the one you came in with.

Wisdom not mine: On A Sense of Entitlement

December 14, 2014

–from Jeff Burkhart’s column “Barfly”–

“. . . entitlement in people is directly related to how much success that they have, combined with how little they had to do to get it.”

Burkhart’s column “Barfly” appears weekly weekly in the Marin Independent Journal, and I’m sure elsewhere including online, at this link. It is the best feature in that paper, and is always full of insights about human nature seen from the working side of a bar.

“Antarctica: A Year on Ice” for the brave and stouthearted

December 3, 2014

We may all think we have an idea of what “Antarctica: A Year on Ice” must be like, but thanks to this documentary’s compelling mix of time-lapse photography and everyday life in the Antarctic over the course of a single year, we now know better. These two elements are nicely interwoven to show the personal aspect, the interaction of human life and environment meeting in the extremes of each. It isn’t for everyone, the movie makes clear, but for those who have chosen it—or those whom this life has chosen—there is no other.

Other movies may focus on the stark reality of cold and ice, wind and sky, the importance of science and its discoveries in shaping or saving our planet, the trials and triumphs of geographical exploration. This movie focuses on the people there, and we the audience are let in just a little bit into their unique world. A great deal of it revolves around what we in the rest of the world call “work,” six days of it a week, almost all of it in a captive indoor environment, but for those interviewed who have come here don’t seem to mind. It’s all a part of the package they’ve chosen.

The year begins with the landing of a C130 as it ferries in hundreds of people, the supplies needed to sustain the polar stations over the course of a year. McMurdo looks from the air, and from within, like a mining station posted on a bleak landscape. The station itself never gets prettier, but generous views of the surrounding mountains, seas, ice and sky leaven the film. We meet the people at their work and play, but as the year rolls on and the spools unwind, some of them come to the fore. We get to know them, the firefighters, the administrators, the shop clerks, and get some sense of why they keep coming back. There’s a wedding with the whole base is invited, engagement ring carved from ice and the wedding rings made by the machine shop of brass. As the saying goes regarding finding a mate down here, “the odds are good but the goods are odd.”

In the autumn, August, the C130 takes away the hundreds of summer people, and leaves behind the 90 or so who will winter over, making good the damage done to equipment and keeping the station over. The long day ends with a brief and welcome few weeks where the sun sets and rises the way it does in the rest of the world, and the people here enjoy waking up with the sun. Until it rises no more. Cold drops to the -70s, the wind blasts at 220 mph, snow finds its way into the tiniest cracks and fills entire well sealed rooms with snow. Overhead the aurora curtains drape their mystic curtains, the stars wheel round with a clear view into the outer reaches of the universe that can never be known elsewhere. A curious mental lapse called T3 interferes with normal thought patterns. In the firehouse, the men stop talking about women and dream incessantly about food, anything fresh. During this long dark night they change, evolving into other selves, different from and irrevocably altered from the selves they left behind.

This is never more evident than when the new crop of summer people come, and the winterovers retreat into their rooms, away from the crowds, the inexperienced. Still, they miss their homes, their families, the births and deaths that happen during their self imposed exile. And when that exile is over, the things they crave most are the aromas of fresh fruit and vegetation, the feel of grass beneath their toes, a proper sleep in a proper bed. For those of us who live out our ordinary lives, it is a longing we can never share, or fully understand.

Director: Anthony Powell. (New Zealand 2013) 91 min.

Through December 11, 2014 at the Rafael Theater, 1118 Fourth Street, San Rafael, CA 94901
415.454.5813 Main Office
415.454.1222 Info-Line for Showtimes
rafaeltheater@cafilm.org
Review by David Hirzel. www.davidhirzel.net

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